Dr. Isaac Burnet Davenport (1854-1922)
Oil on canvas
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Adolph Weil Jr., Class of 1935; P.986.86
James McNeill Whistler, perhaps the most influential American artist of his generation, spent most of his career in Europe, dividing his time between Paris and London. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, Whistler moved to Paris at the age of twentytwo and studied briefly in the atelier of academic painter Charles Gleyre, but he was soon attracted to the work of the English Pre- Raphaelites and to the practices of more avant-garde artists, such as Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas. Later in his career, Whistler devoted himself primarily to portraiture, producing emotive likenesses in which spectral, thinly painted faces emerge from dark backgrounds. The subject of this affecting portrait is Dr. Isaac Burnet Davenport (1854-1922), an American dentist living in Paris. He established one of the largest dental practices in Europe and was brother to Whistler’s own Parisian dentist, Dr. W. S. Davenport. Whistler shared the admiration for American dentists widely held among Parisians during the late nineteenth century. Of the brothers Davenport he said, “Their operating was just like the flutter of a butterfly in [one’s] mouth.” This ethereal portrait makes no allusion to the sitter’s occupation or prominent social standing. Instead, it suggests a deeply introspective individual concerned more with the life of the mind than material pursuits. As documented in correspondence between the artist or his assistant and the sitter (now in the collection of Dartmouth College Library), Davenport sat innumerable times for this portrait. Whistler worked on it sporadically for a period of about twelve years, repeatedly rubbing it down. The canvas was finally varnished and delivered to Davenport after the artist’s death and was lent by Davenport to the 1905 memorial exhibition held at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Last Updated: 5/13/09